KISSINGER ON IRAQ….Should we announce a firm set of benchmarks for withdrawal from Iraq? Henry Kissinger thinks not, and suggests that the key issue is “whether, in the end, withdrawal will be perceived as a forced retreat or as an aspect of a prudent and carefully planned move on behalf of international security.”

Oddly enough, that’s one of the very reasons I’m in favor of setting benchmarks: it provides a perception that we’re leaving on our own terms, not getting chased out. Given the current stalemate in Iraq, and the slim prospects for breaking this stalemate in the future, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before something happens that forces an American withdrawal ? la Beirut or Somalia, and that would be far more dangerous to American credibility than a planned withdrawal following successful elections.

Kissinger also makes the point that our ultimate goal is a political one, not a military one:

Real progress requires that the Iraqi armed forces view themselves ? and are seen by the population ? as defenders of the national interests, not sectarian or regional ones. They will have become a national force when they are able to carry the fight into Sunni areas and grow willing to disarm militias, especially in the Shia regions from which the majority of them are recruited.

Well, yes. But what makes us think that the presence of U.S. forces will help this to happen? Since a considerable part of the insurgency is motivated by the presence of American troops, withdrawal seems more likely to help this process along than a continued U.S. presence would.

The fundamental problem is that Kissinger and the hawks seem to foresee a decade-long U.S. presence in Iraq, something that I think would be disastrous beyond comprehension. The United States has never demonstrated either the desire or the skill to fight a successful counterinsurgency, and it’s delusional to think that the American public will put up with a ten-year stalemate. But that’s what we’re likely to get. In fact, a prolonged U.S. presence is the very thing that’s guaranteed to keep the insurgency alive regardless of whether or not we have the help of Iraqi troops, and eventually this is almost certain to lead to some fatal disaster that will force a hasty withdrawal whether we like it or not.

Benchmarks may not be a panacea ? and withdrawal is certain to be messy under any circumstances ? but they do send a strong signal that we have firm plans to leave, and to leave on our own terms. This is better for the Iraqis and better for the United States, and it’s the best chance we have to influence a reasonable outcome in the region. An open-ended presence, conversely, is practically an invitation to failure.